Jasper Maskelyne was born in Britain in 1902 and became a celebrated stage magician during the 1930s and 1940s. When war broke out, he stopped touring and joined the Royal Engineers attached to the British Army. He told Allied commanders that he could help camophlage British military assets and trick the Nazis. British high command was skeptical. Apparently he took them out to the Thames and convinced them with mirrors and a model that there was a German battleship on the river.
In 1941, the Commander of British Forces in North Africa was General Sir Archibald Wavell. He created a special unit called the A Force whose role would be to confuse German forces, a sort of counter intelligence mission. He placed Maskelyne in charge. Maskelyne assembled a group of carpenters, stage art directors, and electricians. He set about to make intelligence for the Deutsche Afrika Korps a lot more difficult. As Churchill put it, ‘in war, truth should be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies’. The British had a smaller, less mechanized armor force and were going to make up the difference by simply being more clever.
His team of chemists and electricians and stage experts made inflatable tanks, fake rail yards, bunkers and they figured ways of putting in fake tank tracks after the dummies were placed. Maskelyne’s team figured out something rather amazing. If you look up into the air and see a plane, it’s hard to tell the size of the plane or the distance the plane is from you because the scene is rendered as 2 dimensional, so with no depth of field it’s hard to judge size. Similarly, when you are in a plane and looking at a blinding yellow desert floor, you can look at a truck and not really know how big the truck is. So they made model trucks and model tanks that were only two feet long, and from the air, they looked as real to the pilots of German spotter aircraft as did actual tanks and trucks. Voila, an entire regiment of fake tanks and trucks can be carried in a single actual truck. The Germans burned off a lot of fuel heading in the wrong direction, bombing plywood angti aircraft emplacements, attacking fake tanks and chasing otherwise wild geese.
One night, the Allies knew a series of bombing raids was going to be carried out over the Port of Alexandria where munitions were being stored. Maskelyne found a place on the bay a few miles north of the target and built a fake Port of Alexandria. They began with a series of floating lights reprising city lights, and they constructed fake anti aircraft installations with fake booms and thunder flashes. When radar picked up the incoming bombers, the port city turned their lights out and turned on the lights in the fake port. All the raids that night went successfully and the Luftwaffe dumped their bombs in the water in a fake Port of Alexandria.Tank Now Looks Like A Car
In another feat, his team built swirling dazzling searchlights and installed them miles from the Suez Canal. The ruse worked, and German bombers were blinded by the dazzling light show and could not find their exact canal targets.
During the Second battle of El Alamein, Maskelyne’s team convinced Rommel that a British fortification was being built in 1943 and would be finished that October and from that fortification, the British would launch a counter offensive. The disinformation was launched with fraudulent radio broadcasts with sounds of construction played over speakers. Furthermore, the Magic Gang convinced the Germans that the fortifications would not be finished until October. So they let their guard down and waited. On September 23rd, the British attacked suddenly and caught the Afrika Korp quite unaware.
That trick was welcomed and lauded by Churchill himself.
There have been those who say Jasper Meskalyne’s real trick was convincing everyone that this is all true. Some of the details have been challenged and until I catch up on the challenges I will merely pass along this: if any of this is true, it’s still incredible.
Maskelayne ended up moving to Kenya opening a driving school and he died there in obscurity in 1973.
Source: Latimer, Jon, Deception in War, London: John Murray, 2001.